Brought here by the us, japanese peruvians became ‘illegal’

In the immediate aftermath of the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the FBI made its first arrests of Japanese American leaders and held them in detention facilities and jails across Hawaii and the West Coast. The panic spread to Latin America too, and within 48 hours blacklists of Japanese businessmen, community leaders, teachers and others appeared in Peruvian newspapers.

The US government under president Franklin D. Roosevelt had already been surveilling Nikkei, people of Japanese descent, for years in the US and in Latin America. Central and South American presidents tried to win the favor with the US its allies by allowing FBI agents to be stationed at embassies to generate lists of those they deemed “suspect.”

On Dec. 24, 1941, Seiichi Higashide, Elsa Kudo’s father, was shocked to find his name on one of those lists of “dangerous Axis nationals.” Seiichi was a Japanese immigrant in Ica, Peru, who had built a successful business, developed deep ties to his new community and started a family.


He wrote in his memoir, “Adios to Tears,” that shivers coursed through his body when he saw his name. All he could think was, “Can this really be true?”

Seiichi was a wanted man but successfully avoided Peruvian authorities for two years, in part by digging a secret room into the floor of his home. In January 1944 he was caught. He was held in a jail in Lima, then at a US military-operated prison camp in Panama, and ultimately at the Crystal City detention facility in Texas for the remainder of the war. Through all of this, he had no idea where he was being taken and authorities refused to tell him why he was being punished.

Kudo’s mother, Angelica, was a 27-year-old child of Japanese immigrants in Peru, pregnant with her fifth child at the time of her husband’s detention. Three months after giving birth, Angelica received an urgent telegram from her husband instructing her to bring the family to Texas so they could be reunited at the detention facility. She quickly sold off the family’s shop and its inventory. She and her five children, along with her parents and sister, left their home and boarded one of the last US military ships to leave Peru with detainees and other “voluntary internees” who were following family members into captivity.

The family was eventually reunited at the Crystal City detention facility, just an hour east of the South Texas Detention Complex where nearly 2,000 migrants and asylum seekers are being held today. Crystal City was operated by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the precursor to the agencies in the Department of Homeland Security that control immigration and detention today. The center primarily held families of Japanese descent from Latin America, as well as a smaller number of German and Italian families.

Immigration from Japan spiked throughout Latin America after the US prohibited Japanese immigration in 1924. But in 1936, Peru issued its own ban that, according to historian Benjamin DuMontier, reflected widespread stigmatization of Japanese immigrants as “bestial,” “untrustworthy,” “militaristic” and “unfairly” competing with Peruvians for wages.

As DuMontier wrote in his 2018 dissertation for the University of Arizona, pre-war anti-Japanese fervor reached a climax in a three-day race riot targeting Japanese Peruvian individuals, homes and businesses in May 1940. The “Saqueo,” as it’s known, resulted in approximately $1.6 million in damage and is still considered one of the most traumatic events in Japanese Peruvian history.

Tensions simmered as Peruvian authorities continued to debate how to deal with what was commonly referred to as the “Japanese problem.” Pearl Harbor and US-led “national security” measures presented a lucrative solution. Though not a direct exchange for detainees, the US government lent Peru $29 million during World War II and provided military support and ships.

Though men were the primary targets of this extraordinary rendition, their families often opted to follow them out of economic necessity, fears for safety or concern that they might not be reunited otherwise. Seiichi wrote in his memoir that some families who chose to stay behind found themselves in the “unbearably sad circumstances” of going decades without seeing their loved ones.

In September 1945, US President Harry Truman issued a proclamation authorizing the removal of all “enemy aliens” from US soil. Peru only allowed those with Peruvian citizenship to return. Though none were found guilty of espionage or any other crimes, newspaper headlines characterized those who returned as “leaders of the Japanese fifth column.” In all, only 80 Japanese Peruvians returned to the country that had been their home. Another 900 relocated to wartorn Japan, where many had to restart their lives in a land and speaking a language that was foreign to them.

The Higashides and several hundred other Japanese Latin Americans were able to stay in the US thanks to legal action taken by civil rights attorneys Wayne M. Collins and A.L. Wirin. The lawyers won a court order blocking the removal of 364 Japanese Peruvians, then secured temporary permission for them to remain as laborers at Seabrook Farms, a major producer of frozen and canned foods in New Jersey. But they were still undocumented and considered “illegal aliens” in their government paperwork.

Even so, he was drafted to the US Army in 1952 and required to serve the country that had conspired to abduct and imprison his family, then denied them citizenship. While stationed in Germany, Shibayama’s superior officer applied for US citizenship on his behalf, but the US government declared him ineligible, claiming he had entered the United States illegally.

Provisions made in the Immigration Act of 1952 allowed Japanese Latin Americans, and others who had been banned by racially exclusionary immigration laws, to become eligible for citizenship. But Shibayama and others’ paths were still complicated because the US still said they entered the country illegally. Some Japanese Latin Americans became US citizens in the 1950s, but Shibayama didn’t receive his citizenship until 1972.

As Japanese Americans fought for redress over the course of the 1970s and ’80s, Seiichi, Shibayama and other Japanese Latin Americans fought alongside them. Japanese Americans finally won an official presidential apology and individual payments of $20,000 in the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 — redress Japanese Latin Americans later learned they didn’t qualify for because of their “illegal” entry into the country.

Shibayama, Kudo, Seiichi and Shimizu joined the Campaign for Justice. The group filed a class-action lawsuit in 1996, Carmen Mochizuki et. al. v the United States, that resulted in an out-of-court settlement that promised $5,000 to each of the Japanese Latin American survivors. Shibayama called the lower individual payments and the generic apology letter included with the checks "a slap in the face."

Shibayama and his two brothers filed five additional lawsuits and helped craft two pieces of redress legislation, none of which were successful. In 2003, the Shibayama brothers filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, arguing that crimes had occurred under the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, to which the US was a signatory in 1948. Their case was finally heard in Washington, DC, 14 years later, in March 2017, but the Trump administration refused to participate in the hearings.

The Peruvian government has not formally redressed its World War II actions either. But President Fernando Belaúnde Terry did provide Japanese Peruvians with a parcel of valuable land in the middle of Lima in 2011. The space is now home to the Centro Cultural Peruano Japonés and has become a major hub for Lima’s Japanese Peruvian community.

Shimizu continues to lead the fight for justice in the US. Born in 1950s Berkeley, California, her father was a Japanese Peruvian businessman, who, like Seiichi Higashide, was blacklisted and forcibly relocated to the US. Since the early 1990s, Shimizu has worked to document and expose this little-known US program of extraordinary rendition, and to secure redress for those victimized by it. She also sees many connections between her family’s history and the constitutional and humanitarian challenges of today.